Jay McInerney has oft been clumped together with authors such as Bret Easton Ellis and Tama Janowitz for their success at a young age and “breaking onto the literary scene” in the mid-eighties. It was Ellis' work in particular that pointed me to Bright Lights, Big City, as that book is sometimes paired next to Less Than Zero for its similarities in style and tone.
Perhaps going into Bright Lights with that comparison in mind was unfair (however unavoidable; it was already planted in my little brain, after all), because while Less Than Zero is a very brash, druggy book with despicable characters, Bright Lights is, at its core, mostly a story of broken love.
The first chapter opens with the unnamed male narrator in a sleazy warehouse-like establishment where people are partying around him while he tries to hook up with less-than-ideal women (by his assessment) and find more drugs. This is a misleading way in which to begin the book because it sets a certain tone of debauchery that does not continue through the rest of the story. Yes, the main character does cocaine occasionally and seems to be an alcoholic and a bit of a bastard in his view of women, but he is not the hell-bent man on a downward spiral in the way that the opening chapter sets him up.
He is not a terribly interesting or relatable character in the first half of the book, and it is his surroundings and circumstances that are more worthy of attention. He does not so much loathe his job—a fact-checker at a prestigious New York magazine—as treat it with a sort of disconnected apathy. In fact, stoicism towards nearly everything in life is about the best way to sum up his personality. The only thing he expresses true passion about is the wife that left him a number of months before the novel begins.
The backstory of the narrator and Amanda, his wife, falls about halfway through the book, and I found this narrative to be the most “human” part of the story. It is here that the narrator does become a sympathetic figure and the reader realizes he has a tenderness to him after all. The story of the couples' romance and falling apart is simple and nothing unique from a literary perspective, but tragic and affecting just the same. From this point on, the narrator's apathy and general disinterest in life becomes somewhat more understandable.
While the novel as a whole felt slightly imbalanced to me, its strength lies in McInerney's ability to craft a lovely sentence, which may sound out of place in a book of this sort. There are many stand-alone pieces of delicate elegance scattered throughout the narrative that give one the sense that the author has a penchant for poetry. It makes for an interesting contrast: this mostly bland central character suddenly making very thoughtful observations.
I try not to go into books with any expectations (especially with authors whom I have never read before), but unfortunately in this case I did, which may have soured my perception of Bright Lights, Big City. I didn't hate it, but I also didn't love it. It was just one of those middle of the road sort of things that was at least worth a read.
Like books about discontent young men meandering about Manhattan with the occasional clever phrase peppered in? Read this. Prefer grittier stuff with lots of drugs, sex, bad behavior, and stark satire on the human condition? Bret Easton Ellis is probably more your style (and mine).